Thursday, 28 May 2009

Eggplant Parmigiana

Eggplant Parmigiana is a traditional Italian dish, and it is one of my favorites. Containing fresh eggplant (also known as aubergine in England and Europe), rich tomato sauce and delicious Italian cheese, it makes a wonderful vegetarian main course, although I often serve it as a side dish or as part of a pasta and salad buffet. It is one of those dishes that will improve with keeping, so you can make it ahead of time and/or feel quite confident about keeping the leftovers for up to three days covered in the fridge.

For me it was the perfect dish – except for one problem. I was the only person in our house that liked it. My husband really only ate it to be polite, and my son point blank refused. You see, traditional Eggplant Parmigiana contains lots of canned chopped tomatoes, which neither of them liked, and my son insisted he just could not stand eggplant.

It always seemed a shame to make a big dish of something no one but me enjoyed, even though as I mentioned before it does keep really well. Having said that, it is one of my favorites and I wanted to make it more often. So I got to thinking one day - perhaps if I could change the traditional recipe I was following, I might be able to create something with the wonderful taste of the original, but without the ingredients my family did not like. Of course, it was impossible to eliminate the eggplant from the recipe, being the main ingredient of the dish as it is. However, I was pretty sure it was actually more the chopped tomatoes that were putting my son off, as eggplant really does not taste much of anything. It is a vegetable that mainly picks up the flavors of the ingredients you use with it.

It took a couple attempts, but eventually I came up with a version of the recipe that was an incredible success. We all loved it, and my son enjoyed it so much that he decided he does like eggplant after all, much to my great delight. It’s gone from being a dish I rarely made to one that I make at least every couple of weeks.

As with all layered dishes, the amount of ingredients you need can differ slightly depending on the size of your casserole dishes. Also eggplants can vary wildly in size, from quite small to really very large indeed. In general I would say you want about three medium eggplants or four small ones. If you end up with extra ingredients, just layer them in a small individual serving casserole dish, cook it in the oven with the large one (for slightly less time), cool it down and store it in the fridge or freeze it for a quick supper for one. It is also really easy to double the recipe and make an extra casserole to freeze or share.

Before you start, you will need a large rectangular or oval casserole pan, about two to three inches deep. You will also need a deep sauté pan and a medium non-stick frying pan to make this recipe.

It is important to choose fresh, ripe, firm eggplants. One they get soft eggplants really do not taste nice at all. Be sure to use a smooth spaghetti sauce if your family feels the same way as mine about chopped tomatoes, and I really encourage you to use the optional basic pesto, as it gives the dish an amazing depth of flavor.

You will need:-

3 - 4 eggplants, washed and sliced long-ways in medium slices
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic
1 – 750 ml jar ready-prepared smooth spaghetti sauce
(I like Dolmio Light)
1 vegetable stock cube
2 tablespoons basil pesto (optional)
a couple of handfuls of fresh basil leaves, taken off their stems
5 ounces Parmigiana Regianno cheese, grated
2 eggs, beaten

Preheat your oven to 350℉ or about 170℃.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the sauté pan and gently fry the onion over medium heat until it begins to go translucent. Grate the garlic into the pan, lower the heat and add the jar of spaghetti sauce. Crumble in the stock cube and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the basil pesto if using. Simmer the sauce gently for about twenty minutes, stirring from time to time.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a frying pan and gently fry the eggplant slices in batches for about two minutes on each side. Remove and set aside as they are done. You will need to add a bit more of the oil from time to time. Don’t get carried away though as eggplants will absorb as much oil as you give them - hence my recommendation for a non-stick pan!

Now you are ready for the assembly. Make sure you have your grated cheese and basil to hand. Mix one third of the cheese with the beaten eggs and set aside. Now you can begin to layer the ingredients in the casserole dish as follows:-

Place a layer of eggplant on the bottom and cover with a little more than a third of the tomato sauce and one third of the cheese. Scatter some basil leaves over top. Repeat the layers once more. Now place a final (third) layer of eggplant over top and coat it with a very thin layer of the tomato sauce. Pour the egg and cheese mixture you set aside over top of the whole casserole, spreading it out with a spoon gently so that it reaches the edges (without spilling over).

Carefully place the casserole in the oven and bake for 45 minutes to an hour until the eggplant is tender when you slide a knife into it. The egg and cheese topping should be nicely browned. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for five to ten minutes before serving.


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